HR Magazine - August 2000: May I Help You, Please?

By Karla Taylor Aug 1, 2000
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HR Magazine, August 2000Vol. 45, No. 8

Concierge services come in almost as many varieties as the chores and errands they help get done.

In Racine, Wis., a public affairs director for SC Johnson plans a family reunion from her desk. In Seattle, a vice president at the high-tech company Aventail has a tailor in his office, fitting him for a new suit. Meanwhile, in Boston, an Arthur Andersen consultant is tracking down tickets to a sold-out golf tournament.

Do their bosses know about this?

They sure do. In fact, at all three of these companies the boss not only smiles on such extracurricular activities, but actually subsidizes them. These workers, like thousands more across the country, have access to concierge services as an employee benefit.

Concierges are not new, of course. For years they’ve provided everything from restaurant advice to travel arrangements at hotels and upscale office buildings.

But recently a number of factors have combined to make concierge services an attractive benefit for employees—and to bring more variations on the theme into the workplace. Concierges are now available to take care of virtually all of life’s distractions from work; are widely accessible (and rapidly evolving) on the Internet; and are obtainable at prices ranging from nothing to $100,000-plus.

Even at the top of the price scale, HR professionals describe such services as a smart investment, one that pays off in easier recruitment and retention and a better blend of personal and professional life. However it may look to outsiders, having such services “doesn’t hurt productivity,” says Tara Hitt, human resources specialist at Aventail. “It makes us more productive.”

From Party Planning To Pregnancy Tests

What exactly can a concierge service do?

“Anything that’s moral, ethical and legal,” says Suzanne Brennan, manager of people at Scient, a high-tech firm based in San Francisco that signed up with Les Concierges (www.lesconcierges.com) last December.

Though the capabilities vary as widely as the services do, most locate event tickets, make restaurant reservations, select gifts, arrange flower deliveries and order food for everything from a working lunch to a company bash. In addition, many services handle domestic duties, such as scheduling car repairs, picking up dry cleaning and arranging pet care. Some will even wait at an employee’s home for a repairman to come—and mediate if an appliance is still on the blink a week later.

But some requests sound straight out of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.” There was the bridegroom whose concierge planned his bachelor party via cell phone while he drove to the big night in Las Vegas. The brides who used a service to address their invitations and write their thank-you notes. The woman who dispatched a concierge to the drugstore for a home pregnancy test. The accounting firm partner who had the concierge research and negotiate the purchase of a new car for him—then do it again on a minivan for his wife.

Then there were the clients who just had to locate a harpoon, infant-sized soccer cleats, a working World War II tank, a trampoline for a wedding and a chain saw (“must start easily” specified the client, who wanted it for a presentation).

Only a few years ago, employers wouldn’t dream of paying someone to indulge such whimsies. But concierges make increasing sense given the realities of today’s marketplace, including:

The infamous labor shortage. Now at a 30-year low, the unemployment rate may be the single biggest reason why companies invest in an employee concierge service. They hope it will pay off in recruiting and retaining scarce employees.

The clamor to balance work and life. “There’s no longer the dividing line between work and personal life,” says Mary Ellen Ciafardini, director of human resources for the northeast region for Arthur Andersen, which in November 1998 signed up with Boston-based Circles (www.circles.com). “Having this helps employees manage and takes away some of the distractions so they can ultimately be more productive.”

The evolution in benefits. Concierge services are a natural next step, some experts say, from child care and elder care referral, employee assistance programs and employer-underwritten legal services. They’re equal-opportunity benefits, “good for all levels and types of people—not just people with children, for example,” Ciafardini adds.

The Internet’s new opportunities. Thanks to the World Wide Web, your employees in Schenectady can have the same access as those in San Jose. What’s more, the Internet has spurred both creativity and competition, driving service providers to blend delivery services with discounts, shopping with bill paying.

Whether the jobs that need doing are mundane or mind-boggling, “convenience resources are the glue that fill in the gaps in our lives,” says Molly Shonsey, senior vice president for marketing and new business development with Work|Life Benefits, a resource and referral service based in Cypress, Calif.

“These are the little things that wear us down—how do I find someone to get that leaky faucet fixed? When am I going to get the plumber in to do it? This is not an elitist benefit—it’s a benefit that provides a safety net for all employees.

“We’ve moving past the point where it’s just nice frosting on the benefits cake.”

Cutting-Edge Clients

That may be a bit of an exaggeration. Not everyone is serving up such rich desserts just yet.

In the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2000 Benefits Survey, a scant 4 percent of employers report that they offer concierge services—placing their popularity above employer-sanctioned naptime and pet health insurance (both 1 percent), but below workplace massages (8 percent).

Nevertheless, on Fortune magazine’s latest list of the 100 best companies to work for, 26 offer personal concierge services, up from 15 in 1998. These are companies that have moved beyond thinking that employees’ personal problems are strictly personal.

As Carol Vaughn, a concierge for the Gaithersburg, Md., commercial real-estate firm McShea & Co., says, “Although you may want people to do nothing but work, they may be distracted by the need for a babysitter, or to get their pants hemmed.” (Or, in a recent case of hers, to find just the right surgeon for a pet ferret.) “With me available, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be glued to their desk.”

That glue is just what the employers most likely to offer concierge services are seeking. Most clients fall into two categories: businesses that are competing fiercely to recruit and retain workers, such as high-tech companies in a white heat to get product to market, and firms whose staff bills by the hour—the consultants, lawyers, accountants and engineers for whom time tru.ly is money.

It’s hard to summarize exactly what these employers are buying. Concierge services are both proliferating and mutating—and their jargon and wildly varying price structures can make the field a blur to already-harried HR professionals.

What You Get; How You Get It

Companies searching for personal services can choose between two levels—although vendors don’t always clearly distinguish between them.

Work|Life Benefits’ Shonsey gives this example: If you were looking for a Howdy Doody puppet, a “convenience” service would locate it, tell you how much it costs and give you the phone number of the puppet store. A true concierge service, however, would locate it, use your credit card number to pay the store and have the puppet delivered to your desk. Generally convenience services cost the company less money; concierge services take less of the employee’s time.

Choosing the best way to get in touch with your service presents still more options. The three major categories are:

On-site. Many companies still want the luxury of a real person nearby to provide highly personal, highly visible attention. The disadvantages include equity (why should the staff in the home office be the only ones to have it?) and expense (on-site generally costs the most).

Telephonic. This easy-to-use method is available to any employee. It’s also fairly personal—provided the service doesn’t have call-center quotas that force concierges to rush your employees off the line.

Internet. Most of the services that have sprung up in the past two years promise state-of-the-art web access for a 24/7 world. Many sites tie right into your company’s intranet. They’re especially appealing to high-tech companies where e-mail rules—and to hip young workers for whom being put on hold seems hopelessly 20th century.

With Cincinnati-based Best Upon Request (www.bestuponrequest.com), each employee gets a personalized, password-protected web page that displays a record of past requests, the status of any pending requests and a button for e-mailing new requests. Employees also may indicate whether they want follow-up questions via phone or e-mail. Once transactions are complete, they can rate online how satisfied they are.

Many services, like Circles, offer a mix of web and phone access. Others, like Les Concierges and Best Upon Request, offer all three methods. Most promise results in 24 to 72 hours, depending on the difficulty and urgency of a request.

Some services are strictly local, specializing in one metropolitan area. The Internet-based ones, especially, may serve several large cities or regions. Some, like the Daily Demands service offered by Shonsey’s firm, may be an add-on perk from a company that already handles your employees’ dependent-care referrals or other benefits.

Several services encourage combining concierge benefits with existing incentives. Employees who work after 7 p.m. might get free dinners; top performers could receive gift certificates for anything from tickets to travel.

The Cost Question

Even with the most lavish services, employees still have to pay for the pet pedicure or that hard-to-obtain objet. But employers underwrite the concierge’s search to varying degrees. How and what a client company pays depends on the number of employees, their utilization rate and the level of service requested. Among the possible pricing methods:

A per-employee rate. Some services charge the employer a capitated rate, often figured on a PEPM (per employee, per month) basis. For Scient, it’s a matter of pride that this PEPM rate covers any amount of time the employee’s request requires—including three recent weddings planned on short notice.

A set rate (PEPM or otherwise) plus hourly fees. The fees are based on the amount of time the concierge service must spend to complete a particular task. A few employers cover the full charge. More common is a variation on the health-insurance model: The employer underwrites the basic fee, but the employee chips in a co-pay on the hourly charge for particular tasks.

For example, at Best Upon Request, the capitated rate starts at $6 PEPM, and hourly fees range from $10 to $25. Some employers require their employees to foot the entire hourly fee themselves; others want them to pay for anything beyond the first 15 minutes. SC Johnson’s employees pay a flat $5 toward the hourly fee, and the company pays the rest.

How much can this add up to? Circles says its corporate clients pay as little as $30 or as much as $100 annually per employee. Two corporations that requested anonymity—one on the East Coast, the other on the West—say they spend more than $100,000 annually for workforces of 900 and 1,200. As one human resource professional notes, “The charge is not peanuts.”

No cost at all. Instead of charging you, some services take a percentage of the receipts on anything your staff orders from its approved vendors, from restaurants to dog walkers. One example is ServiceStop, which bills its offerings as “delivery-based services on the Internet” (www.ServiceStop.com). Headquartered in Seattle but expanding into several other cities this year, it also provides such perks as a free bill-consolidation plan for client companies that order, say, food or flowers.

The keys to happiness with such free-to-employer services: Make sure their vendors don’t charge your employees extra. And beware of any tendency to push unneeded services to build revenues.

Service that Clicks

Like so many industries being transformed by the Internet, concierge services are very much in flux. “We’re still at a wait-and-see time,” says Ann Vincola, senior partner with Corporate Work/Life Consulting in Boston, citing a number of as-yet unanswerable questions. Will these services catch on beyond the most employee-friendly—or employee-starved—companies that hire concierges now? Will services keep attracting the millions in capital they need to sustain a business? What will current clients—and services—do if a recession hits or unemployment rises?

But one thing is certain: The evolution will continue as concierges weigh the viability of no-cost options, expand into more cities and experiment with new delivery systems, including web sites designed for cell-phone and Palm Pilot access.

Meanwhile, a variety of other cyber-services are springing up, such as employeesavings.com (a discount program), perksatwork.com (an employee portal to everything from shopping to message boards), and paymybills.com (which does just what it says). It’s not hard to imagine that one day these services—and others that are still only a gleam in some entrepreneur’s eye—will be partners or competitors with today’s concierges.

The result could be a Web-enabled workplace that helps keep employees’ errands and households humming right along without ever taking them away from their desks.

No wonder the boss is smiling.

Karla Taylor is a Bethesda, Md.-based freelance business writer.

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